By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Before Kirkuki leaves the tire shop, Shubak praises Jalal Talabani, the current Iraqi president and former Kurdish guerrilla leader. Though he doesn't agree with the Iraq Study Group's recommendation that the American and Iraqi governments dialogue with Iran, and Talabani has been doing just that, Shubak has nothing but praise for the president.
"He's a good man," he says.
"You have to believe that," Kirkuki teases. "He's the secretary general of your party."
At the Kurdish men's table, the topic of conversation is the usual one: Iraq. Saber Hamad, a bearish man with a sharp jawline and thick mustache, is talking about how today's problems can be traced back to the borders drawn by Western powers after World War I and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. "In 1920 they forced that state to become Iraq for their benefit," says Hamad, who grew up in a small Kurdish village and joined the peshmerga in 1991. "Since then, we fight."
Hamad, like his friends, is glad the United States ousted Saddam, but when he talks about the chemical assaults against the Kurds in the 1980s, his rage at the West's inaction is clear. "Where were America and Europe when Saddam attacked the Kurds and committed genocide?" he says angrily. In 1987, he says, 153 people were killed by chemical weapons in his mother's hometown. "All her family, including my grandmother, was dead," he says. "I was in the shower and my brother came in and said, 'All our relatives were killed yesterday in the village; we have to go.'" When he, his brother and mother arrived, there were hundreds of bodies, most of them black and partially decomposed. They took the wounded survivors to a nearby hospital, he says, but soldiers arrived and took them away. They found out later that the women and children were left in a remote place to die and the men were buried alive.
"I still dream about it," he says.
"Nightmares," says Sherzad Fattah, a gnomish man with a gray mustache, gently correcting his friend's English. "You have nightmares about it—you don't dream about it."
As a child, Hamad spent long stretches hiding from the Baathists with his family. "Until I was 10, I spent most of my days in caves," he says. "Most people spent a third of their lives in the mountains."
"Caveman," teases Bakhtiyar Bilbas, a quiet man who worked with Kirkuki at Kurdistan Save the Children and did a stint as a translator in Iraq in 2003. The three of them laugh.
Kirkuki puts his arm around Hamad. "Caveman," he repeats with a smile.
"Hey, you were living in a city!" Hamad replies. "I had to live in a cave the entire year of '74!"
As for solutions to the anarchy bubbling over in Iraq, the men agree the best move would be to divide the country, what politicians and experts refer to as soft partition.
"They keep saying Iraq has to be united as one country, but everything proves it's impossible," Fattah says. "Eventually, they'll have to separate them."
Hamad nods. "Separation is the best way, because these are three completely different ethnic groups." An independent Kurdistan would spark opposition and possibly even attacks by neighboring states such as Turkey, which is worried about the ambitions of its own restless Kurds. And of course the north would have to figure out a way to be economically independent, which would likely require Kirkuk.
But the biggest stumbling block to soft partition would be Baghdad, Bilbas says. "It's half Sunni and half Shia," he says. "They'd never give it up."
"Maybe they can just flip a coin for Baghdad," Fattah says, prompting the others to laugh. Then he grows serious. "Iraq was born a paralyzed baby. It's never going to get on its feet."
Hamad responds with a sober nod. "Exactly," he says, again emphasizing that it all goes back to the borders drawn nearly a century ago with little regard for the region's ethnic groups.
Fattah leans back. It's growing late, and they've been discussing the complexities of Iraq for hours. As if to settle the matter for the night, he makes one last pronouncement: "It's a made-up country."